Taking Innovation to Scale In African Agriculture


Agriculture, a sector at the heart of Africa’s development challenges.

As we all know, Africa remains a continent with a fairly high poverty rate. Key facts and trends continue to reveal this:

  • About 41% of the population south of the Sahara lives below the global poverty line of $1.90 per person per day [1].
  • Undernourishment in Africa affects about 20.4% of the population, or just over 237 million people. In addition, the demand for food will increase in view of increasing demographic pressure. [2]
  • Agriculture already contributes to about 65% of employment in Africa, and this rate could be higher if the entire agri-food system is taken into account. However, these jobs remain precarious and do not allow small producers, who represent 80% of farmers, to live decently [3].

It therefore appears that agriculture is a key sector which, if developed, will help to achieve certain sustainable development objectives in Africa. These include poverty eradication, hunger eradication, access to decent work and stronger economic growth.

For years now, this sector has struggled to meet this potential due to low productivity, heavy losses, insufficient investment etc.  Climate change will undoubtedly magnify the productivity challenge. Within the last 5-7 years, many have begun to see innovation as the key to unlock Africa’s agricultural potential.  For innovation to act as a key to large scale improvements in agriculture, it must itself perform on scale.  What is happening with agricultural innovation on the continent and how can we bring innovations to scale so they in turn can impact agriculture on scale.  Let’s take a look.

Types of innovations in the agricultural sector in Africa.

Innovations in the agricultural sector in Africa focus on technical, technological and organizational aspects.

Technical innovations tend to focus on production, conservation and processing in both farming and livestock breeding.  They include the development of improved seeds, farm equipment and natural conservation techniques for agricultural and livestock products.

In the field of technology, drones are being developed to facilitate the performance of tasks such as crop protection and the surveillance of herds. Applications are being developed to enable farmers learn about weather, market prices and farming techniques. Networks on mobile devices enable farmers to exchange information, follow training courses and sell their products.

Images of Drones for Agricultural use and a mobile App to identify crops disease and find ways to cure.

Organizational innovations concern new forms of cooperation, with a view to enabling farmers to better organize themselves in order to strengthen their skills, disseminate technical knowledge as well as access funding and markets. Contract farming is an example where multi-year contracts with large companies can enable farmers to expand production, meet quality requirements and access both training and funding. The return to cooperatives is also enabling “innovation” that integrates lessons of the past to allow farmers better market their products and easily acquire their inputs.

Innovations are being developed daily across the continent.  Yet despite a lot of hype about drones on farms and mobile apps for cattle herders these innovations have so far had only a small impact on the development of the agricultural sector and the major challenges of production, conservation, transformation and the creation of decent jobs in African agriculture, remain intact.

Why have the innovations not had a significant impact on African agriculture so far?

STRATEGIES! facilitates an experience sharing event on innovation for rural development for over 200 participants from 14 countries for German Development Cooperation (GIZ)

 After a few years of supporting various organizations which focus on innovation, STRATEGIES! has identified a number of bottlenecks that limit the impact of agricultural innovations on the continent. The most salient are:

  • ►The weak involvement of public authorities in the innovation process. Innovations are very often driven by individual farmers or small start-ups. Few countries have a mechanism whereby these innovations can be supported by government services. Due to the lack of systems for identifying, adopting and replicating these innovations, they remain unknown to the general public and particularly to those in the agricultural sector who should use them. The innovator has neither the means nor the mandate to bring new equipment or technology to the farmers who need it most. Still today government services seem far removed from the cutting edge thinking that is innovating in agriculture.
  • ►The non-sustainability of innovations initiated through development organizations alone. Innovations initiated through development projects have the advantage of being supported for a creation and testing phase. However, if the project is not anchored within a large-scale farmers’ organization or within local, regional or national extension services, there is little chance that the innovation will be adopted by a large number of users.  As soon as the project ends, the innovation will either be abandoned or continue to be used on a very small scale.
  • ►The high cost of implementing innovation. Some innovations, because of the cost of their implementation, are beyond the reach of farmers. There is no mechanism in place to allow small farmers to access these innovations despite the cost. Other innovations are costly to develop and take to market. Neither farmers, nor innovators have support to develop and access innovations.

So overall, it is the absence of a system for identifying, supporting, introducing and scaling up innovations that limit their impact on the agricultural sector.

Key actions to scale agricultural innovations and boost agriculture in Africa

In order to scale up agricultural innovations in Africa, it would be wise to invest in the system for identifying, supporting, introducing and scaling innovations. In this cycle, each actor should play their role.

For Governments:

  1. Establish a system for promoting and identifying innovations at the local level, particularly in municipalities, within the education system and through agro-pastoral fairs.

– In municipalities, there should be a mechanism in place to enable innovators submit their work to the municipality and to local Ministry of Agriculture services. This will enable innovations to be identified early and will open up the possibility receive support for them.

– Identification should also be done at the level of schools and universities. To do so, agriculture should be a part of the education system, which will encourage young people to see agriculture as a professional option, even as it encourages innovation initiatives.

– Many governments organize agricultural fairs. During these fairs, innovation should be showcased and discussed. This will provide the opportunity to give innovators incentive awards and will facilitate outreach regarding to specific innovations.

  1. Strengthen government institutions in charge of innovation

This includes, for example, strengthening agricultural research and development institutes so that they are able to pick up the best innovations and scale them up. They must therefore receive funding to fully develop them in order to make them accessible to small farmers. Research facilities must also have a direct link to extension services which will enable farmers to be informed about an innovation, test the innovation and give feedback for scaling up.

  1. Subsidize innovations.

Some innovations require significant investment for both development and acquisition.  Subsidies which go directly to the innovator as well as those who enable the small farmer to access the innovation are essential.

In addition, municipalities can acquire expensive innovations (notably equipment) and set up a management system that enables large numbers of farmers to access the same equipment.

For Farmers’ Organizations:

It is important for farmers’ organizations to see innovation as an essential part of their work. Good organization will enable farmers’ organizations to partner with innovators, research institutions and/or governments.

Furthermore, well organized cooperatives and associations can develop partnerships which enable them to orient the development of specific innovations to solve problems identified by their members.

It is essential that farmers’ organizations identify, test, improve and scale up agricultural innovations with or without government support.

 For Development Organizations:

Today, development organizations are probably the actors that provide the greatest support to innovation on the African continent. This work is to be applauded as it has produced some remarkable results.  To scale it up and render it sustainable, development organizations must remember the following:

  • ►It is necessary for innovations to be anchored within the national ecosystem: farmers’ organizations, ministries of agriculture, research institutions, private sector organizations, etc. as early as possible.
  • ►It is necessary to develop the business case and business plan for an innovation. How will development, testing and dissemination be financed?  What is the market segment for the innovation, does that innovation have the buying power to access it, etc.
  • ►It is helpful to connect innovators across national borders and even across continental borders. It is important that this learning and sharing be anchored within the national ecosystem of the country where the innovation will be used.
  • ►A discussion on patents and intellectual property cannot come too soon. Africans have often been robbed of their innovations. Both innovators and actors in the national agriculture ecosystem may need assistance in navigating discussions on intellectual property.

Innovations, however successful they may be, are necessary but not sufficient instruments to enable the African agricultural sector to meet the challenges it faces. The answers to be provided must necessarily be part of collective approaches involving all the actors concerned. These responses must also highlight the mechanisms of interaction with the agriculture ecosystem in order to make innovations truly work for agriculture.

Africans are innovating.  It is essential to capitalize on these innovations to accelerate and scale up results in agriculture so we can meet the various challenges related to population growth, food needs and employment in Africa.

[1] 2018 Report of the world bank : https://www.worldbank.org/en/publication/poverty-and-shared-prosperity

[2]  2018 Report of FAO : Africa regional overview of food security and nutrition

[3] Banque Mondiale 2016: https://www.banquemondiale.org/fr/topic/agriculture/brief/the-west-africa-agricultural-productivity-program

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